Starr: A Passover Tale for Baseball Fans

Tonight, as they did last night and have done for more than 2,000 years, Jews will gather with family and friends for Passover seder, with its ritual retelling of escape from slavery in Egypt, of 40 years spent wandering in the desert and, finally, of the Promised Land.

On Tuesday, my brother Billy and I met at Fenway Park for Boston's home opener and, in similar ritual fashion, retold our Red Sox story. It always begins with my brother's insistence that, with the Red Sox somehow having rallied from three games down against New York, we needed to trek to Yankee Stadium for the seventh game of the 2004 American League Championship Series. I am once again forced to concede that I was extremely trepidacious. "You know it will end badly, just like it always has," I prophesized, finishing on this ominous note: "You and I will be stuck in the Bronx at two in the morning, waiting for the A train and taking abuse." With the benefit of hindsight, you may regard me as a coward. I prefer, in the retelling, to cast myself as the responsible, elder brother proffering wise counsel to the brash and foolish kid. (Think Aaron to Moses: "Do we really want to go tick off the Pharaoh just because some bush caught fire?") But go we did. And thus we witnessed the miracle, how Derek Lowe, Mark Bellhorn, Johnny Damon and crew parted the Blue Sea. And how afterward all those folks on the A train seemed to be smiling. And how in New York you can still get a good whitefish-salad sandwich at two in the morning. Our tale wends its way back to Boston, through St. Louis and finally, after an 86-year odyssey in baseball's desert, to its Promised Land. We've been telling this story for two years now and never tire of it. We Red Sox fans have always been a sentimental people. Few teams tug at the heartstrings like the Red Sox. Tuesday's ceremonies began with a moment of silence for Curt Gowdy, who came to national prominence after his 15-year stint as the voice of the Red Sox. Then the Red Sox trotted out (though "trot" may not be the best word) six members of the 1946 pennant-winning team, one that came within a mad "country" dash of ending Boston’s championship drought 58 years earlier. Each player, the youngest of whom is 84, tossed out a ceremonial first pitch. It was a moving affair. But these days all the sentimentality surrounding the Red Sox is of that nostalgic variety. When it comes to the team that management puts on the field, baseball in Boston has become a decidedly unsentimental affair. Indeed there were almost as many members of the '46 team at Fenway as there were from that championship team of recent vintage. Only eight players who saw action in the 2004 World Series were on Boston's 25-man Opening Day roster. So many of yesterday's heroes—all those "idiots"—have been scattered across the baseball landscape: Lowe and Bill Mueller with the Dodgers; Bellhorn, Dave Roberts and Alan Embree with the Padres; Bronson Arroyo with the Reds; Kevin Millar with the Orioles; Pedro Martinez with the Mets, and, most cutting of all, Damon who shaved and shed his locks for 52 million pieces of silver from the Yankees. Damon's departure doesn't sit well with the Fenway faithful, particularly the cell-phone set. ("Quick, turn on your TV and look behind the dugout. I'm wearing a red jersey and waving ...") It revered Johnny, not for his OBP or OPS but for his long hair, scruffy beard and, so I am told, great buns. The kids don't seem to grasp the nuances of new-age baseball, which have led the Red Sox to a hardball philosophy: Never pay for what a player did for you yesterday, only for what he is expected to bring to the plate tomorrow. If that approach seems oddly dispassionate given the emotions vested in the team, it is dictated by harsh baseball realities. The Red Sox have finally come to accept that, 2004 not withstanding, the team can't compete dollar for dollar with the Yankees. Whenever the two teams have gone head to head over a player, New York has outbid Boston—in Damon's case by a whopping $12 million—and come away with its man. It hasn’t been lost on the Red Sox (or the Yankees for that matter) that those have sometimes proved to be Pyrrhic victories. While the front-office wars lured A-Rod to the Bronx, they have also put such notable flops as Jose Contreras and Carl Pavano in pinstripes. What distinguishes the Yankees from the Red Sox—besides, of course, all those championships—is that, with a payroll approaching $200 million, they can absorb tens of millions of dollars in mistakes and still prevail. The Red Sox, even with baseball's second-largest payroll at $120 million, can't afford such profligacy. So the Red Sox have segued into a new approach, turning its once disastrous minor-league system into one of the best reservoirs of talent in the game. Jonathan Papelbon, who has been lights out so far as Boston's new closer, is the first of several young studs expected to arrive at Fenway—at bargain prices—over the next few seasons. But here's the hidden truth about baseball's most impassioned rivalry. Despite the emotional overload attached to Boston’s relentless pursuit of the Yankees, Red Sox fans shouldn’t be worrying about the Bronx Bombers. The Yankees have won the American League East for eight successive seasons and, with an offensive juggernaut this season, figure to do it again. Despite the Yankees’ stranglehold on the division, the Red Sox have gone to the playoffs each of the last three seasons. That's because Boston actually competes in the wild-card division, against teams like Oakland, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Cleveland, Chicago and Toronto. And in that division Boston is the bully with the payroll advantage. The wild card has proved to be as good a path to the playoffs as any. Three consecutive wild-card teams—Boston in 2004, Florida in 2003 and Anaheim in 2002—won the World Series, while the wild-card Astros got a shot last year. By the third inning of the Sox opener, you could hear the Fenway buzz shifting from celebrations of the past to dreams of the future. The Red Sox, with a major upgrade in pitching and an improved defense this year, appear to be a team built for the postseason, when pitching tends to trump hitting. Boston fans are already contemplating this knockout postseason rotation: a rejuvenated Curt Schilling, whose bloody heroics against the Yankees in 2004 remain unrivalled in BoSox lore; Beckett, who at age 23 shut out the Yankees in their own ballpark to clinch the 2003 World Series for the Marlins, and—veering into that baseball borderline between reality and fantasy—Roger Clemens, who is flirting with the idea of capping his legendary career with a return to the town where it all began. It is a very optimistic but not an impossible scenario. The hardest part will be claiming that postseason berth. By my estimation, eight of Major League Baseball's top 10 teams are in the American League, making the road to the playoffs especially perilous this year. The consolation is that it portends a rather compelling season for fans in Boston and elsewhere. And however it turns out, we will always have 2004 to recount and revere.